The Power of Paying Attention

The Power of Paying Attention

What Jon Kabat Zinn Has Against "Spirituality"

November/December 2004

In 1966, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a graduate student in molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was walking down one of MIT's endless, pallid-green corridors when he spotted a flyer advertising a talk about Zen by somebody named Philip Kapleau. A former reporter at the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal, Kapleau had spent years practicing Zen in Japan, and was about to publish a book, The Three Pillars of Zen, that would become a classic text for American students of Buddhism. Kabat-Zinn was a very bright, hard-driving, 22-year-old kid from New York City, the son of a distinguished research immunologist, who was just starting out on his own promising scientific career. He had no idea what Zen was or who Kapleau was, but, in a sea of notices posted on one of the huge bulletin boards lining the corridor, this flyer somehow called out to him.

There were only five or six others at the talk, Kabat-Zinn writes in his new book, Coming to Our Senses. He doesn't remember much about what Kapleau said, except that conditions in a traditional Zen monastery sounded basic to a fault--primitive, no central heat, and freezing cold in winter. But Kapleau explained that within six months of moving into the monastery, his chronic ulcers went away, never to return. Kabat-Zinn was startled to hear that ulcers--a physical ailment--could clear up without medical treatment. This fact seems to have sparked in him some barely-conscious surmise about the mind's power to…

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